By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Saving money on school buses may seem like a way to save money without affecting what happens inside school buildings, but Sanislo Elementary parents and staffers beg to differ.
Monday night they managed to snag an hour-plus of Seattle School Board president Steve Sundquist‘s time to make their case against a planned transportation schedule that would have Sanislo students start school at 9:35 am.
They’re not the only school facing changes (as reported here week before last) – Roxhill, Lafayette, and Concord also are on the list for bus-arrival times that would push the starting bell back to 9:30 or later.
Sundquist, who agreed to the meeting earlier in the day, squeezing it into what he described as an already meeting-laden schedule, stressed that he wasn’t coming with answers. In fact, he opened with, “I want to make sure I understand the problem.”
Some of the 50 or so people packed into Sanislo’s library did their best to help with that.
The later school starts, the less likely it is that parents will be able to go in and spend some time in the classroom in the morning, a common time for volunteering.
Sanislo PTA co-president Matt Knannlein recalled the days when he would notice the “roundabout parents” – those that just dropped their kids off outside and quickly circled back away from the school – and think, we have to get them in here and involved.
Now, with kids starting school well past 9 am, he finds himself a “roundabout parent” more often than not.
A new start time after 9:30 am would be a full hour later than where it was just a few years back, Sundquist was told. And the resulting end time – putting kids on buses home at 3:45 – would mean in winter, they would arrive home in the dark. “We don’t want second-graders walking home in the dark,” declared PTA co-president Gillian Allen-White. “That’s a huge part of what has us shaken about this … it’s put us in an untenable position.”
On the front end of the day, the question was, how could parents get to their jobs on time if their children wouldn’t even be allowed into the school building until well after 9 am, the time when many workdays begin?
For Sundquist’s part, he tried to help the parents and staffers – which included Sanislo president Ernie Seevers – understand just how dire the money situation for the district. “We had to cut this winter, again, $35 million … and the Legislature may be going the wrong way [in terms of school funding] and we may have to cut even more.”
The transportation budget for the district itself is $20 million, and a contract associated with it is on the agenda for Wednesday night’s board meeting, though the bus pickup/dropoff times – which determine the schools’ bell times – does not appear to be attached to it. They were in a document considered by the board a few months back, minus the proposed times for Denny International Middle School and Chief Sealth International High School, which were revealed by their principals at a joint meeting of their PTSAs last week to discuss logistics of their impending co-location (WSB coverage here).
Last night, Sundquist reminded the Sanislo group that when he was elected three and a half years ago, “we had a system … in which schools set their own bell times and the transportation system followed along. That was also part of the choice system, driving a huge, huge transportation expenditure.”
Now, after going through other big changes including a switch to “neighborhood school” assignments instead of “choice,” the district tries to maximize the use of each bus, with at least two routes each morning and afternoon, as well as making it more difficult for students to qualify for transportation.
Sundquist agreed with one concern voiced: The backwardness of middle/high schools getting the early start and elementary schools generally the late start, when the older/younger age groups’ body clocks tend to run the opposite way. Maybe in the future, he suggested, they would be able to align the school schedules more to those body clocks. That would require not just bus-schedule changes but also negotiations with Seattle Parks regarding athletic scheduling, Sundquist noted.
But for now, “we can’t just literally go out and flip a switch and make this happen,” he said. Nor can he necessarily order some quick move to address the Sanislo concerns. He said he had taken some action since concerned parents showed up at his community chat last Saturday; on Sunday, he said, he had called interim superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield and asked her “to have someone start to look into it … So research is being done,” he assured, while reminding, again, that the district’s money problem still loomed large.
He was asked to be sure that research included what schools the Sanislo buses also would be serving, as some thought it was Denny, which would mean a 2-hour gap between its 7:40 am start time and Sanislo’s.
Changing the bus times might not be possible, Sundquist suggested, going on to wonder, “could something be worked out to take care of kids (dropped off early) without forcing people to pay for child care they can’t afford?”
Staffers wouldn’t just be hanging around and available to keep an eye on them, it was noted in response. Certificated staff “is bound by the same contract and same hours” as teachers are, said one staffer.
From start times to budget savings, this was a meeting when there was a number around almost every turn. Sundquist had not come equipped with a sheaf of them, and that drew criticism from one meeting participant. He fired back that “this is a volunteer job … I’m working about 50 hours a week as a board member right now … dealing with the media … asking for support from a central office which is depleted; we just fired 100 people in March. One of the things you are looking at is a system in trauma, which is not being responsive to you and not always to me either. I’m in meetings most of the day and can’t keep up with all the requests for data.”
Allen-White said she had been asking for the “same data” for 2 1/2 years and had never received it.
Through a translator, one parent asked a poignant question, whether the board members considered how exciting it is for kids to come to school in the morning, as early as possible, once they’re up – excitement that would be dampened by the hours that would elapse before a 9:35 start time.
Sundquist stepped closer to the table with the translator and said, almost gently, “I know you might not believe the School Board or Central Administration care about the kids. Actually, that’s why they (we) come to do this work. But they are trying to do it on a budget that they are being asked to meet – by law, we have to balance the budget. The only reason I continue to do the work is because there are kids who will benefit if we do it as well as we can.”
One woman, unswayed, said, “I feel like the school district keeps making bad situations worse.”
Another offered hope that maybe district transportation director Tom Bishop would change his mind: “I want to hear that they looked at this (situation).” Their intense concern demanded it, parent Lisa Keith said: “When you have this many people show up for a meeting on short notice … With a two-hour notice … we got 50 people in a room.”
Before Sundquist had to leave for his next meeting, someone asked pointedly, “So what are the chances of change?”
His reply: “I don’t know, because I haven’t seen the exact plan” – which schools are paired with Sanislo to arrive at the bus schedule that led to the 9:35 start time. He promised to let Allen-White know what he finds out.
After Sundquist left, principal Seevers invited anyone interested to stay and look at the schedule he had roughed out if the new times don’t change. By contract, teachers are supposed to have a half-hour of prep before children come in, so that would start at 9 am, he said; buses would arrive at 9:15, which is when breakfast service would begin – it was noted that about half of Sanislo’s students, around 150, eat breakfast at school. Classes would start at 9:35, with lunch/lunch recess time starting at 12:30 pm, and the end-of-day bell at 3:40.